UK Police Can't Search You Just Because You Smell of Weed, Watchdog Says

Two-thirds of stop and searches are conducted under the pretext of drugs searches.
September 11, 2020, 2:13pm
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A protester holds a banner against stop and search at a BLM protest outside Tottenham police station, London. Photo: Matthew Chattle / Alamy Stock Photo

Police officers should not stop and search people on the grounds that they smell of drugs, a watchdog has said.

An officer at the Metropolitan Police will have to undertake “reflective practice” after the Independent Office of Police Complaints (IOPC) upheld the complaint of a Black male cyclist who was stopped and searched in Euston, London.

However, the watchdog ruled that the incident was not an example of discriminatory behaviour, as the officer said that he used the pretext of drugs to stop and search people of other races and genders.

Emmanuel Arthur, founder of the Black Cyclists Network, was waiting at a pedestrian crossing when three police officers crossed the road and told him that his bike was too far forward. In an Instagram post, Mr Arthur says he responded that, if he reversed his bike, he would end up in the blind spot of an HGV, so would be endangering himself.

After this, the officer stopped and searched Mr Arthur because he said he smelled of cannabis. After the search, “they conveniently said they did not smell cannabis on me”, says Mr Arthur. No drugs were found.

“I am very annoyed at having to go through such a degrading and humiliating experience. It seemed to me like a gross abuse of power by an officer who tried to show off to his colleagues, and made up a reason as retribution for his failed attempt,” wrote Mr Arthur. “To say that I am pissed off is an understatement.”

VICE News recently reported that almost two-thirds of stop and searches by Met Police officers are conducted on the pretext of searching for drugs. A former chief inspector told VICE News that many of these searches are actually carried out “for reasons of control and as an excuse to harass and bully people, rather than search for drugs”. Use of stop and search skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, our research showed.

IOPC Regional Director Sal Naseem said, “Stopping someone on the single ground of a suspicion of the smell of cannabis is not good practice, and it’s right that the officer will have to reflect on this. Our investigation found the officer had used the same approach on other occasions, but with people of all sexes and ethnicities.

“However, it’s still important to acknowledge that Mr Arthur felt racially profiled. The importance of police officers recognising, and being aware of, the disproportionate impact stop and search has on Black communities in particular cannot be understated.”

Campaigners have welcomed the news. Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, the national centre for expertise on drugs law, said: “For too long, officers have been using the smell of cannabis as an excuse to target people, mainly people of colour and young people. This is despite [Black people] using drugs at a lower rate and being less likely to be found in possession when searched compared to the white population.

“Hopefully this decision will go some way to reduce such police stop and searches, but if we want real reform, then we must end the use of criminal sanctions for possession of drugs, including cannabis. Otherwise, drug laws will continue to be used to harass communities.”

Stop Watch, a group that works for fairer policing, tweeted, “Finally an IOPC decision we agree with… Policing must be fair, effective and accountable.”

@SimonChilds13